Cancer is a disease that occurs when body cells grow out of control. Many of the 200 different types of cancer can be successfully treated, but medical research continues to seek absolute cures.
What is cancer?
A cancer begins when a single cell escapes the normal genetic controls governing cell growth. Exposure to certain chemicals, radiation or a simple mistake in the normal process of cell division can trigger the production of increasing numbers of abnormal cells until a lump or tumour forms, or the number of one type of cell increases dramatically, as in cancers of the blood. This abnormal cell growth is driven by gene damage known as mutations. The rate of growth may be slow; for example, it is estimated that in breast cancer it takes an average of seven years from the first cancer cell to awareness of a lump.
Cancer is a malignant disease that progressively harms the body. There are two principal features in the development of cancer: the spread and invasion of surrounding tissues known as ‘local spread’, and the invasion of the blood and lymphatic system that carries the cancerous cells to form new tumours in other parts of the body.
Who is at risk for cancer?
Cancer can result from genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors. About 70 percent of new cases are diagnosed in people who are at least 60 years old. If your family has a history of cancer, a faulty gene passed from generation to generation may increase your chances of developing a particular cancer. Heredity, however, is the central cause of only about 5 to 10 percent of cancers. The vast majority of cases—about 75 percent—are caused by things that you can control, such as smoking, a poor diet, significant overweight, alcohol abuse, and exposure to various cancer-causing substances, also called carcinogens, such as pesticides, asbestos, and radon. Some experts contend that bad eating habits are responsible for approximately one-third of cancer deaths in North America.
Treatment for cancer
Treatment depends on the type of cancer, how far it has spread, and how fast it’s growing. Medical and pharmaceutical research and technology have advanced so far so fast that more and more people are surviving cancer, thanks to carefully targeted interventions. It’s always wise to get a second opinion before starting any anti-cancer therapy, but do not delay treatment. Your treatment options include:
- Surgery, which about 60 percent of people with cancer will undergo, often in combination with other treatments.
- Radiation therapy, which kills or damages cancer cells by exposing them to X rays or gamma rays.
- Chemotherapy, which uses drugs to poison cancer cells and block their reproduction.
- Hormone therapy, which works by disrupting the production or action of hormones, chemical messengers that perpetuate the reproduction of some types of cancer cells. Sometimes hormone therapy involves surgical removal of hormone-producing glands to kill cancer cells or slow their growth.
- Immunotherapy, which supports the body’s immune-system defense against cancer.
Medications for cancer
Pain may develop from the cancer itself, from secondary tumours or as a result of cancer treatments. Tiredness, poor sleep and depression can all make pain worse. Painkilling medicines may be prescribed. There is a range of painkilling drugs, starting with simple analgesics and working through to more powerful drugs such as morphine.
If you are prescribed morphine it doesn’t mean that the cancer has become more serious, simply that it is giving you more pain.
Alternative Therapies for Cancer
In addition to drugs, other treatments may be used to control pain, including radiotherapy, nerve blocks, acupuncture, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), relaxation therapy and hypnotherapy.
Questions for Your Doctor
- What sort of cancer is it?
- How far has it spread?
- What is the prognosis for survival?
- What are the treatments?
- How likely are these to be successful?
- What side effects of the treatment can I anticipate?
- What can I do to improve my chances of recovery?
- What is the chance of relapse?
- Is there any risk to other members of my family (possibly from inherited factors)?
Prevention of cancer
- Limit fat. Keep your fat intake to 20 percent of your diet. Avoid saturated fats (those that are solid at room temperature) and trans fats (found in margarine and many processed foods, especially snack foods and baked goods and anything with the words partially hydrogenated on the label). Use monounsaturated oils like olive oil or canola oil (organic canola oil is ideal) instead of vegetable oils that contain polyunsaturated fats.
- Favour fish. Replace red meat with white meat or fish, especially fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids—salmon, sardines, herring, and anchovies. Just one serving a week can lower your risk of colorectal, esophageal, and stomach cancers.
- Go for five. Eat at least 5 servings a day of fruits and vegetables, which are packed with cancer-preventing substances. The cruciferous vegetables (including broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower) are particularly rich in these compounds. Tomatoes also have anti-cancer properties; to reap the greatest benefit, eat them cooked, in sauces, soups, and even catsup. Garlic and onions have cancer-fighting properties, too.
- Increase fibre. Eating plenty of fibre replaces excess fat in your diet and may help prevent certain cancers. Whole-grain cereals, beans, and other legumes are great fiber sources.
- Eat soy. Soy contains substances that are thought to cut cancer risk. Have some soy milk, miso, or green soybeans (available frozen). Try soy flour in your pancake recipes, or add tofu chunks to your stir-fry or soup.
- Ban barbecue. Charcoal-grilled foods may be carcinogenic, so choose another cooking method whenever you can. Marinating meat before putting it on the grill may cut down on carcinogens. Or cook it partially in the microwave first so it spends less time on the grill.
- Nix nitrites. These food additives, which have an extensively documented link to cancer, are found in smoked meats and fish, bacon, ham, hot dogs, sausages, and luncheon meats.
- Get in shape. Even moderate physical activity can help protect against colorectal cancer and cancers of the lung, breast, prostate, and uterus. Another advantage: Exercise helps you keep off extra weight, which increases your risk.
- Catch it early. Learn more about the symptoms of various cancers and discuss your risk factors with your doctor. Then schedule appropriate screening tests such as mammography (to detect breast cancer) and colonoscopy (to detect colorectal cancer). Ask your family doctor or dermatologist to check your skin annually for suspicious growths.
- Arm yourself with antioxidants.
- See green. Green tea contains a powerful antioxidant called EGCG, which scientists believe may help fight cancer. Studies suggest that drinking green tea may lower the risk for colorectal, breast, stomach, and skin cancers.
- Limit alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption increases your risk of certain cancers. Have no more than one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men.
- Stop smoking. Countless studies have confirmed the harmful effects of tobacco products. They cause not only lung cancer, but also cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, and pancreas.
Adapted from Looking After Your Body: An Owner's Guide to Successful Aging, Reader's Digest; Family